When my children were younger, dance parties were a regular evening activity at our house. These were the days of dinner-must-be-at-5:30-sharp-because-ohemgee-everyone-melts-down-by-5:34, so there were a few too many minutes to fill most nights between the end of dinner and the commencing of the bedtime routine. Tempers ran short and emotions were ragged—and the children weren’t much better.
“Go out into the bonus room and find something to do that doesn’t involve a screen,” I would command in Stern Mom Voice. My husband was in a season of heavy travel for work and after a long run of solo parenting, I just needed 10 minutes of peace to clean up the kitchen before the bath and bedtime routine began.
“Alexa, play ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’ by Justin Timberlake on Spotify,” my son, Nathan, would say. With a squeal, his younger sister would join him and they’d begin to twirl. Three songs later, the kitchen counters were wiped down and I’d watch from the doorway as they got lost in the music.
If you’ve ever watched children dance, you know it’s impossible not to smile while doing so. And I don’t mean at a hot, stuffy recital, in an expensive costume, where an adult has taught them a series of steps and there’s a stage and spotlights and video cameras. I’m talking about in your living room, on an average Tuesday night, when they’re grooving to a beat they feel in their bones. It’s not very rhythmic. It’s silly and spastic and there’s a lot of falling down. But it’s also one of the most joyous things you’ll ever observe. I’d argue that no one is happier than a kid dancing for no particular reason.
Somewhere over the past year, we stopped having dance parties.
Like many of the shifts in childhood, I can’t put my finger on exactly when it happened. But much as my son used to take baths and now he showers, and my daughter stopped calling out “Mom, Mama, Mommmmyyyyyyy!” upon waking and just gets herself out of bed, I know that we used to have them, but now … we don’t.
Or we didn’t, until Saturday night.
Jon turned on Justin Timberlake, and Ellie took off, twirling and shimmying. But Nathan didn’t. He sat on the couch, next to Jon and me.
“Don’t you want to dance, bud?” I asked.
“Not right now,” he said. Shyly. Embarrassed. “Maybe in a minute.”
When did this happen? Nathan is our resident goofball. He’s forever being silly and imaginative, and his dance moves have always had a lot of emphasis on arm movements with very little on following the actual beat. I always thought he didn’t really notice how his dancing melded (or didn’t) with the music; in fact, until 30 seconds ago, I would’ve said he didn’t care in the slightest what anyone else thought of his silliness.
Except that, apparently, he did care. Enough to keep him from dancing. A wave of guilt washed over me that at first I couldn’t place. And then it hit me.
Without question, one of the hardest parts of parenting is being confronted with all my flaws and shortcomings. Sometimes they show up when my children bring out the worst in me—they have that innate ability to push exactly the right button that makes me lose my shit every single time.
And sometimes they mirror the traits I like least about myself. The things I held my breath and crossed my fingers against, the threads of my character running through all my most embarrassing moments and the do-overs I wish I could have. It is physically painful as a parent to watch this manifest in my children.
I know this. And I know it because I know exactly where Nathan’s self-consciousness has come from.
He got it from me.
You’re always more likely to find me on the couch, or sipping my drink, or fiddling nervously with my hair, than in the middle of the dance floor. I like structure and a prescribed way of doing things, and that doesn’t exist in dance. Dancing is about trusting my body and its response to the music. It can’t be memorized; it can only be felt.
Trust and feelings aren’t exactly my strong suit.
Instead, I watch other people. I mimic the way they move and pretend that imitation is the same as feeling the beat myself. I’m constantly wondering what I look like and if I’m being ridiculous.
Dancing isn’t fun for me. It’s work.
I want my kids to be better people than me. I don’t want them to struggle with the same things I struggle with. I don’t want them to struggle at all, in fact. I want them to be brave but not reckless. Confident but not arrogant. Kind but not pushovers. Smart, but still able to fit in and be accepted by their peers. I wouldn’t mind if they were reasonably athletic, good-looking, and likeable, either.
In other words, I want perfection. Surely that’s not too much to ask, is it?
My intentions are honorable. I know the pain of being picked last for kickball in PE, of riding out an entire middle school dance with my back firmly against the wall feigning interest in the supermarket cake and mystery punch, of looking back on missed opportunities because I didn’t have the courage to try. My flaws have caused me pain, and I wouldn’t be a mother if every instinct within me didn’t scream to never let my children experience that pain.
It’s tempting to push for flawlessness as a means of circumventing heartache. If they could just learn the lesson sooner than I did, maybe they wouldn’t be hurt the way I was. If I can fill in the gaps and overcome the deficiencies for them, their lives will be easier. And easier sounds better.
But is it?
Or, is it possible the lesson lies in bravery, rather than perfection? Instead of hoping they can walk an impossible tightrope of just enough/not too much, I could spend my days cultivating acceptance of their own limitations, the boldness to try anyway, and, above all, an understanding that we don’t have to quit the moment something becomes difficult or uncomfortable.
Perhaps the trick, then, is not to teach them from my past but my present. Because these, you see, are the lessons I am still trying to learn.
I sat on the couch next to Nathan for the space of half a song, thinking, wondering, what I could say to convince him to dance. I scrolled through my mental Rolodex of pep talks and encouragements, but nothing felt right. I glanced at Jon and he gave me a half shrug; of course he’s no help—Jon is more at home on a dance floor than anyone I know. This is all you, his eyes seemed to say.
As the next song began, I stood. The only other person moving was Ellie, currently sprinting at full speed back and forth across the bonus room, so I had no one to imitate. It was just me. For a second I froze, not knowing what to do. Then I shrugged and started to move, focusing on the beat and its pull on my hips. I turned my back to Jon and Nathan and closed my eyes.
It seems silly to say that I felt brave in that moment, dancing in front of my children and husband. The stakes were incredibly low—I had no one to impress. But yielding my mind to my body feels foreign and scary, regardless of the audience; keeping it up for the length of a song seemed impossible. I pushed back against the discomfort and let the rhythm overtake the doubt. By the time the song ended, my heart was pounding and I was slightly out of breath. I opened my eyes, and Nathan was watching me. I winked at him, and he grinned back. As I sat down on the couch to catch my breath, Nathan turned to me.
“I thought you didn’t like to dance, Mom,” he said.
“It’s not that I don’t like to dance,” I said. “I just wish I was better at it than I am; sometimes it makes me feel a little silly or embarrassed. But tonight, I just really felt like dancing, so I decided to be brave.”
“Well, you did look a little silly,” Nathan answered, with the honesty of an 8-year-old. Then he peeked up at me and added, “but you looked happy, too.”
Three days later, we’re in the car driving to soccer practice. My playlist lands on Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton’s “Say Something” and I hear Ellie singing and clapping (more or less) to the beat from the backseat. At a red light, I glance in the rearview mirror. Nathan has his eyes closed, and he’s dancing.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode, Parenting for the Long Haul with Krista Gilbert.